Hispanic community takes on polluters

Hodgepodge zoning puts chrome-plating plants next to homes

  • 'WHY US?' Michael Martinez with the air-quality monitor in his front yard

    Darrell Burnett
  • Street art on the Coronado Bridge

    Darrell Burnett
  • Map

    Diane Sylvain
 

 SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Several blocks from the gilded office towers that grace the downtown skyline, the towering superstructure of the Coronado Bridge casts a long shadow over barricaded houses. Here, Latino families live side-by-side with businesses like recycling plants, factory workshops and auto-body shops — the kinds of businesses you’d expect to find in an industrial park. The wind often carries a metallic tang from the waterfront’s processing plants and Navy shipyards.

Perched on the edge of downtown San Diego, the working-class community of Barrio Logan has about 29,000 residents, 85 percent of whom are of Mexican origin. The median household income here is less than half that of San Diego as a whole, and the community is plagued by high unemployment, a lack of social services and overcrowded schools. Mixed-use zoning laws allow polluting industries to be located near, and even beside, homes.

Barrio Logan’s mishmash of homes and industry dates back to the 1920s, when the bay-front area was marked for industrial development. By the 1930s, the neighborhood had become a largely black and Latino enclave, as restrictive real estate covenants barred people of color from owning property elsewhere in San Diego. Logan also became the dumping ground for businesses that would not be tolerated in more affluent neighborhoods.

Today, 210 industries with regulated hazardous materials are located within a three-square-mile area in Barrio Logan. Although the community takes up just .07 percent of San Diego’s total land area, it’s home to 7 percent of the county’s toxic hot spots. Residents run the risk of exposure to a haze of diesel exhaust, carbon monoxide, benzene, hexavalent chromium (chromium 6), and lead particulates.

For Michael Martinez, a youth counselor who has lived here for 26 years, the impacts hit close to home: His 6-and-a-half-year-old son, Robert, has been rushed to the emergency room numerous times during asthma attacks. Martinez points to homes nearby, and says, "There are 10 kids his age with the same respiratory problems.

"We’re the oldest, largest and poorest barrio in Southern California," he says. "We never had clout."

That is changing, however.

An uphill battle

Residents’ efforts to clean up Barrio Logan were at first largely symbolic. They painted the ramparts of the Coronado Bridge with murals depicting the neighborhood’s struggle against institutional racism. But in the mid-’90s, says Martinez, "We started picketing, marching, anything to get the city’s attention."

Those efforts garnered the help of the local nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), which discovered that the children of Barrio Logan suffer from asthma at twice the national average. Armed with reams of testimony and medical evidence, EHC lobbied state regulators to intervene. In 1999, the California Air Resources Board designated Barrio Logan as one of six sites statewide for the Children’s Environmental Health Protection program.

After a year of initial surveys, investigators began focusing on the area’s chrome-plating businesses, including Master Plating, a small-scale operation which plates auto bumpers and grilles, along with smaller decorative items, such as watches and pendants. When state technicians monitored air quality near two metal-plating operations from November 2001 to March 2002, they found that 29 of the 87 air samples taken violated state health standards for hexavalent chromium, a compound used in the chrome-plating process which causes cancer and can exacerbate asthma.

"We were shocked by the level of chromium, both inside and outside the plant," says Jerry Martin of the state Air Resources Board.

On March 7, County Supervisor Greg Cox announced that the county would pursue an injunction to shut down Master Plating for violating environmental regulations. Eight months later, faced with mounting legal costs and an uncertain future, Master Plating closed its doors.

Allan Beauloye, another local chrome plater, says that after spending 18 months and $1.2 million to track pollution, the Air Resources Board wasn’t going to leave empty-handed: "No one could have withstood the scrutiny Master Plating was subjected to."

But Martin of the Air Resources Board says the state is scrambling to regulate a chemical whose health risks scientists still don’t fully understand. "Prior to 1988, there were no environmental controls (on chromium 6) at all," Martin says. "Since Barrio Logan, we’re seriously reviewing and updating our emission and control standards." In Southern California alone, there are 150 such chrome-plating plants, 40 percent of which operate in close proximity to homes.

Zoning out

In Barrio Logan, community activists are now focusing on the area’s outdated zoning regulations. At the neighborhood’s once-a-month mini town hall meetings, "the level of outrage runs pretty high," says Ben Hueso, the city’s project manager for the Barrio Logan Redevelopment Area.

On Dec. 10, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance banning another chrome-plating shop from moving into the building vacated by Master Plating. Another ordinance is pending to update Barrio Logan’s 23-year-old Community Development Plan to prevent other polluting industries from moving in.

"The people and the businesses are entrenched. Neither side is going away," Hueso says. Barrio Logan’s victory against Master Plating won’t be the end of the community’s pollution problems, but it may at least open the door to a less lopsided distribution of toxic industry. Says Hueso: "Every community should bear a fair share of the burden."

The author writes from San Diego, California.

You can contact ...

  • California Air Resources Board, 916/322-2990, www.arb.ca.gov;
  • Ben Hueso, Barrio Logan Redevelopment Area, 619/533-5214;
  • Paula Forbis, Toxic Free Neighborhoods Campaign for Environmental Health Coalition, 619/235-0281, www.environmentalhealth.org.
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